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Other People’s Pain

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Today's Zaman LogoIt will make reconciliation between Turk and Armenian more difficult, not less; it will fuel a reckless form of nationalism and isolationism with consequences no one can predict.


This is an argument I have used myself to argue against US House of Representatives Resolution 106 -- the non-binding motion of the 110th Congress that the treatment of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constituted genocide. Turkish society is now engaged in a debate both about its past and its present. Such a resolution would be the equivalent of watering a growing flower with a fire hose. The idea is to get away from official history -- why try to overwrite one version of the past made in Ankara with another version made in Washington? Truths legislated by parliaments are by definition tests of power and political expediency -- they have little to do with the consensual truths which would allow Turk and Armenian to speak face to face.

Of course this is not an argument that attracts a great deal of sympathy, particularly in Washington, where Armenian pressure groups believe they have a historical opportunity to convince the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to overlook the other argument -- that HR 106 would jeopardize American strategic interests with Turkey.  Convinced of the justice of their own cause, it is almost impossible to empathize with the quite complex proposition that they might be muddying the waters of Turkish democracy half way around the globe. “And what evidence is there of growing liberalization in Turkey, when state prosecutors persecute the country’s finest minds under Article 301?” I was asked at a seminar the other day.

The appearance of the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul Mesrob II in Washington last week complicates the issue. The patriarch attends to the spiritual need of the remaining Armenian community in Turkey, probably 70,000 souls, and it is clear that the majority of that community does not favor the passage of HR 106 precisely because it does not take account of their own position. Far more important than genocide recognition is getting their Turkish neighbors to recognize that they are themselves Turkish patriots and not a third column and whatever you choose to call it -- their  history has held much pain.  A remark I had heard, not of course from the patriarch but from a prominent member of the Turkish Armenian community, is that the diaspora resents the existence of the community still in Turkey and is happy to see a backlash.

This is, of course, an extreme view, but there is a common view in America that Armenians in Turkey have views that are not to be taken in consideration either because they are too frightened to speak, what they say is coerced, or they have become Uncle Toms and  traitors to their own cause. It is not surprising therefore, that the patriarch, during the few occasions I saw him in Washington, appeared subdued. It is not often that one sees ordained clergy actually carrying a cross, but he seemed slumped under a heavy weight.

As judicious as he was with his words, there still appeared to be those who did not want the patriarch to speak at all. A presentation he was meant to give at Georgetown University was cancelled. He was informed that the talk on how to end the impasse between Turk and Armenian was cancelled for “security reasons,” and according to him no other explanation was given. From what I gather, the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University had agreed to host the talk on short notice at the request of the Rumi Forum, an Islamic-centered interfaith dialogue group associated with the Fetullah Gulen movement. As incredible as it seems, the center did not anticipate controversy. After being swamped with requests for press facilities, Georgetown panicked. The university had hosted a talk only recently from a senior Wal-Mart executive, a far more controversial figure on an American campus than the Istanbul Armenian patriarch. People I spoke to from Georgetown itself were openly skeptical that the event presented so intense a security threat that it could not go ahead. The explanation they found more probable was that their university was guilty of academic cowardice, that it had listened to the objections of Armenian groups who did not want the patriarch to speak, and had decided it just wasn’t worth the fuss.

There are no easy answers in this issue. No one has the right to say “I told you so.” Questions of justice and empathy for others’ suffering are traduced to Realpolitik, and the suffering will go on.

Andrew Finkel
Today's Zaman
For the article's link please click here. (Date accessed: 03 April 2010)